Since Schofield Watch Company's Signalman was released, its designer Giles Ellis has been riding his self-made wave of design-inspired success right into the upper echelons of modern horology. With his second timepiece, the Blacklamp, Ellis has taken his successful design and refined so much that one has to wonder where he'll go next. When it comes to the details there is simply no other modern watch label that takes things as far as Schofield does. Indeed, each customer begins their relationship with Ellis' young label with a series of handwritten notes and updates before the watch itself is even in their hands.
Fresh from being hailed as something of a demi-design deity at London's fine watch exhibition Salon QP, Ellis spoke with us about the challenges brought about with the Blacklamp, musing about design and his passion for details.
"One thing I'm proud of is the level of customer engagement we have with each owner. Moving away from conventional watch business practices is what we're aiming for," he notes—explaining that he and his partner Matt have a 100% success rate when they sit down with a prospective customer. The Schofield duo don't even have business cards; preferring to write their personal email addresses on a piece of sturdy card and inviting the recipient to take coffee at a private members' bar to discuss a potential order.
Regardless of whether he wanted to or not, Ellis has become the embodiment of his brand. The man who sold everything he loved to fund it, who wanted to rid this small industry of its "douchery," to stop brands buying cheap movements to modify and re-label as their own. "It had to be me, I'm the filter that is Schofield. Everything that bears its name is me, is designed by me and people buy into that—not because they want to be me but because they know I care. Because they know I'm thoroughly and deeply into everything. It's a relationship of lasting trust that I want to create," he says. Yet Ellis isn't an ego-driven designer, and that oozes from his work—he's an honest, open, designer's designer. Which is why his work and his timepieces are so interesting in our present world; one dominated by fast-paced living and digital immediacy.
He genuinely cares about the impact of his work too, founding an initiative called Tide Time dedicated to cleaning up waste plastic from England's beaches and shorelines. "I'm not about carbon offsetting—that's just bullshit, marketing speak," he states. Instead Tide Time looks to work locally to raise a sincere awareness of a viably solvable problem—having no plastic in the Schofield studio being just one small factor. The project itself stemmed from a Tide Time calculator watch (still in the works) in 31 editions—referencing the number of areas in the British shipping forecast.
While the Blacklamp is not entirely a secret as of a couple of weeks ago, its discovery is definitely nothing short of breathtaking. "It's simply a thrilling, cool watch," says Ellis. The designer believes that, when setting out to make a watch there are three areas one can examine: design, function and materials—yet they have to find balance or the outcome will be too stylized and clichéd. For the Blacklamp, the focus was on the materials. That said, Ellis explains that he took the Signalman as its starting point and pared it back to its best attributes: "We amplified everything that was good about the Signalman, but also made more of the less."
So the Blacklamp retains the Signalman's hour and minute hands but finds them inverted so a larger face of material is closest to the extremities of the dial. To let them better reflect the incredible light given off by the solid ring of NASA-developed Moonglow® nestled under its crystal, they were also given small thorns to act as a counterpoise for the redistributed weight. The Signalman's GMT dial is replaced with a large seconds counter, proportionately referencing a pocket watch. The indices are replaced by small studs and three different blue hues are used together with black and white. "You need groups of color to see black light, UV. I did a color study and developed this as a tangible reference point," says Ellis.
Then there's texture: "There's lilac on the dial, which is pretty exotic for a watch. The whole watch is an extended play on color and light. Even the crown is finished in two ways, bead-blasted and polished and it bears the unicode symbol of the lighthouse you'd find on a shipping map," explains Ellis. He also adds that the industry found it astonishing that he left the Signalman's crown untarnished by his logotype—opting for a simple, clean polish. "It was actually a little mathematical narrative, having the same curve angle as that of the domed crystal," he says.
The crown also holds one of the key talking points of the Blacklamp, the Tritium gas light, which will emit on its own light for 12 years through a small pinprick in the crown. It's too low a light source to be seen during daylight hours but, come nightfall, it will illuminate a small pinprick-sized glow from its radioactive source.
Also on the watch is Morta®, a proprietary material created by Ellis and one of the UK's biggest carbon manufacturers—a special mix of carbon fiber, hand-laid and formed into small billets, each of which is 96 layers dense before being compressed, baked, milled into shape and hand finished. As each billet amounts to one case and each billet is made by hand, each Blacklamp has a different finish. What's amusing however is that as a design material (until the arrival of his Morta®) Ellis actually despises carbon fibre; stating that its aesthetic, pattern and overall function leave him cold. Yet Morta® is less artificial and more tactile than its "performance" counterparts, with a layered profile similar to that of ancient fossilized bog woods. "Morta®'s been developed specifically for the rigors of a watch, the friction of the winding, the twisting of the lugs," he says.
As a wondrously quirksome (some may say very English) twist, the Blacklamp is specced with a very simple manual wind movement. The Unitas 6497-1, which Giles thinks has the best "tick" in the business and is a nod to the origins of the watchmaking profession—this being the movement most learn their craft upon. Ellis has, of course, added a custom hack (so the seconds stop when you set the time) and decorated it with beautiful Geneva stripes and heavy rhodium plate, visible through the large sapphire case back. The manual action has also been altered so the crown does not have to be pulled out for time adjustments, to relieve stress from leverage.
All these touches, considerations and hours spent in development certainly add up to a watch that has to be seen, held and worn to be truly appreciated. Like many watches, it's more than just a talking point. It's a study in one man's intrepid, tireless devotion to detail. "Manual, yes. Once a day you have to stop and deliberately engage in this simple task of winding the Blacklamp. You're allowing yourself a pause, a moment. I want people to slow down and consider what they've bought," he concludes. Ellis and Schofield perhaps force us to appreciate craftsmanship and the constrictions of finite time in a world that often feels like it's ceaselessly passing us by—and that's an important factor and a mark of good design in any field.
The Blacklamp is available online for £9,900 in a limited edition of 100—each bearing the name, coordinates and light characteristics of 100 different lighthouses in the British Isles, plus loads of extras like your own pocket torch to charge up the Moonglow. We can also reveal that his follow-up will be the Schofield Beater, a more affordable, pre-distressed timepiece in the vein of the Signalman, yet with none of the anxieties associated with actively wearing an expensive timepiece.
Images courtesy of Schofield Watch Company